LONDON - Neu Tec Pharma Ltd. has secured £7.3 million in venture capital funding, one of the U.K.'s largest biotechnology start-ups to date, to develop treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections.

The company, headquartered at Manchester University, will spend the money on bringing its three lead candidates into clinical trials and building its intellectual property portfolio. The funding is expected to last two years.

Neu Tec (short for Neutralizing Technology) is based on clinical observations by James Burnie of patients infected by “superbugs“ following surgery. Burnie is head of Manchester University's department of pathological sciences and of the microbiology services of four Manchester teaching hospitals.

Burnie compared patients who recovered following intensive care for a hospital-acquired infection with those who died, and discovered that survivors produced antibodies to the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There is a mortality rate of 40 to 60 percent among patients who acquire these infections, and those who recover require expensive intensive care.

Three such antibodies - from patients who suffered from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, vancomycin-resistant Enterococci or the yeast infection Candida - have been sequenced and produced by genetic engineering.

Tony Martin, chairman of Neu Tec, told BioWorld International, “We have tested these antibodies in infected guinea pigs and found that they can make a full recovery. We are now at the stage of scaling up production for clinical trials and intend to compare antibodies produced in yeast and Escherichia coli to see which is most effective.“

The company has filed seven patents, of which three have been granted. Martin, a former managing director of Cambridge-based Celsis International plc and of British Biotech plc, of Oxford, noted Neu Tec has determined and filed patents on the bacterial antigens to which its antibodies bind.

“This will prevent anyone else developing therapies which touch these antigens,“ Martin said.

Two candidates will enter Phase I next year. Martin said it may be possible that one of those will get to Phase II before the end of the year.

“We will know quickly if it works,“ he added. “If you consider that out of 10 people in a hospital who acquire these infections five die, even if we only reduce this to four [deaths], ethically no one could hold you up on doing a Phase II.“

He said reducing the amount of time recovering patients spend in intensive care also could justify registration.

This would quickly put Neu Tec in a position to secure pharmaceutical partners. Martin said there already has been interest from companies, including Johnson & Johnson, of New Brunswick, N.J., and Zeneca Ltd., of London.

“As we went through financing, big pharma came after us, but we wanted to keep them at bay until after Phase II, when the company will be worth far more,“ Martin explained. “After two years we will have the option of doing a deal with a major group or going public.“

The venture capital came from 3i plc and ABM Amro. Martin said he was pleased with the response, which shows that despite the depressed state of the quoted U.K. biotechnology stocks, venture capitalists are still hungry for good ideas.

Company Targets 15 Different Infections

Manchester University has retained a 17 percent stake in the company in return for intellectual property. Neu Tec is based in laboratories leased from the university. There are six staff members, and the intention is to increase the number to 15.

Early last year the university set up a biotechnology incubator to foster the development of companies based on its research. However, Martin said Neu Tec decided the development of its technology was sufficiently advanced to go it alone.

“We didn't really need the kind of support offered by the bioincubator,“ he observed. “There was such a lot of interest in the company and the investors didn't want us to wait, so we just got on with things.“

Martin said much of the appeal comes from the fact that the company's technology is based on clinical observation. “It is surprising that no one had thought of this approach before. But from my experience of biotech companies, they tend to be run by scientists with loads of sexy ideas for developing more and more molecules.“

Neu Tec has drawn up a list of 15 target infections to which it intends to apply its methods. It already has discovered antibodies to E. coli 157 in the blood of patients who recovered from this infection in a food poisoning outbreak in Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1997.

“The list is based on market research and clinical knowledge of the infections which cause the most problems. We think our approach will apply to other infections,“ Martin said. *